Jimmy is Instagram’s most famous Bull Terrier.
Named after the famous shoe brand Jimmy Choo, the nine-year old Bull Terrier is the focus of Rafael Mantesso’s brilliant illustrations.
Divorced and bankrupt, Rafael used Jimmy as inspiration for his art.
Sketching famous film characters, interesting objects or funny quotes next to his dog on a white canvas, their Instagram account went viral in 2014.
They’ve got nearly 600,000 followers on the photo-sharing app.
Rafael has spoken openly about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as Jimmy’s health problems.
We spoke to Rafael to learn more about their success, the challenges they’re facing and what’s next for Jimmy.
How did you end up with Jimmy?
My life with Jimmy started with people and their dogs. My first dog was a Pitbull. I loved him so much. I became a huge fan of the Bully dogs. I don’t like dogs with too much hair, bark a lot or tiny dogs that you can’t touch because they’re too sensitive. I like strong dogs. My first experience with my Pitbull was amazing. I first met the Bull Terrriers at the age of 15. I was living in a tiny city. I was the only person living in the city with a Pitbull. There were no Bull Terriers in Brazil at the time. I only saw them on the internet. When my Pitbull died, I didn’t think I’d have another dog. Some years later when I got married, my wife and I decided to get a dog. It was about 10 years after my Pitbull. When I decided to get another dog, it was more common to see Bull Terriers in Brazil. I looked up some breeders to find a responsible breeder that wasn’t doing a puppy farm. We found a very special lady. She taught me everything I know about the breed. She’s still a mother to Jimmy today – she calls me every month to ask how Jimmy’s health. She’s the mother of all the Bull Terriers she breeds. She’s so responsible and cares about the puppies that she breeds. I was anxious to get my puppy, we went to meet the “little demons”. Jimmy was the craziest one: he was the most energetic, biting everything and everyone. When I entered the room with Jimmy’s Mom and all his brother, he was the first one to come to me. The breeder told me Jimmy wouldn’t be the biggest. She suggested Jimmy’s brother because he was stronger. I told her I didn’t want the strongest or the perfect puppy but I wanted the crazy puppy so I picked Jimmy!
How did Jimmy get his name?
Some breeders like to give names to their puppies when they come from the same mother. In Jimmy’s case, the concept was X-Men names. All Jimmy’s brothers and sisters had X-Men names like Storm, Wolverine and Cyclops. Jimmy wasn’t a famous X-Men. He was named after a character who was in a magazine years ago and never appeared again. We hated this name. My wife didn’t want the ugly name for her dog. She said she’d pick a name for him. I said, ‘Ok, I picked the dog, you pick the name’. She picked the name of her favourite shoe brand: Jimmy Choo. We don’t have money to buy Jimmy Choo but she loved the brand because she was working as a fashion designer at the time.
How did Jimmy help you in a difficult time in your life?
Two or three years after we got Jimmy, we divorced in December 2013. My restaurant went bankrupt. We had a deal in our divorce to divide up the furniture between us. I decided to travel with Jimmy to my parents’ home to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with them. I returned on the day of my 30th birthday on 14 January. When I entered the apartment, it was empty. It was a bad moment in my life. It felt awful. I didn’t have money to buy anything because my restaurant had gone bankrupt. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t want to live in the apartment. It was a big apartment for one guy and one dog. So it was time to start my life again. I had free time with nothing to do in an apartment with no furniture. I asked my friends for help because I had no money to pay the bills. I had no electricity or water. It was a complete mess.
How did Jimmy’s Instagram page start?
I started to draw and paint to fill my time. Jimmy, of course, was by my side every time. I kept cardboard boxes in my home because it reduced the echo of my voice around my home. I drew some drawers on the cardboard box to imagine it was furniture. In the process of drawing to make my walls colorful, I started to draw on cardboard boxes with a wig around Jimmy on the floor. I was literally drawing around Jimmy! I just had a white canvas, my dog and my imagination. The ideas started to appear in my mind. One day, the pictures of Jimmy on Instagram went viral and after that, my life changed completely. It became my job because I started to get money. It didn’t happen in one day, it took months to happen. I was sleeping and everything went viral. I woke up and I had 16,000 emails in my inbox. In the middle of all these emails, there was an invite from Jimmy Choo. There were four or five emails from book agents asking me to produce a book. I started to reply to them and the emails never stopped after that. My followers started to grow. Now, I’ve been doing this for five years. We did a lot of things: we did the Capsule collection with Jimmy Choo, we launched our book, we licensed products in more than 20 countries, we did advertising campaigns for brands like Porsche, Netflix, Coca-Cola, Doritos, Pepsi and lots more. Jimmy became my boss. I have the most amazing job in the world. I still love to photograph my dog. I still have the same passion. At the beginning of the year, I retired Jimmy. I stopped taking photos of him in the white studio. We are now facing some new challenges. I am creating the character of Jimmy. I am doing some animations. I want to see how Jimmy can feature in other products of my inspiration. I am doing other kinds of things, not to pursue money, but I need more challenges to my creativity.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your success with Jimmy?
The most amazing thing about Jimmy’s story is connecting with people around the world. I’m not a social guy and I’m autistic. I find it difficult to socialise [with people] and I’ve only got a small number of friends [just two]. I don’t know how to socialise with people at events but when I started to put my work on the internet, I start relationships with people that are on the other side of the world. It was amazing. We have the same feeling for our dogs, we have the same love and passion for them. Bully is a bad word for people who had a bad experience in school. I lived this experience with Jimmy. At the start of the story, we suffered a lot of bullying. People wouldn’t enter an elevator because they’re scared of Jimmy. People would cross the other side of the street. People would call Jimmy ugly. When Jimmy became famous, the opposite happened. People would cross the street to hug him, they’d take pictures of him. The word bully changed because now we’re talking about bullies in a good way. It’s the most amazing thing about this five-year journey. I helped to change how people see Bull Terriers a little bit. They don’t see Bull Terriers as evil or bad dogs like they saw five years ago.
How is Jimmy’s health?
It’s been a tough year for me but it’s been even more difficult year for Jimmy. He is suffering with arthritis. He feels a lot of pain and there’s nothing we can do to reduce it. We tried everything. Jimmy had a very difficult surgery. The metal pin broke in the middle because he has short legs but they’re muscular. He had another surgery and the location of the metal pin was changed. He lost a lot of muscle mass on the leg because it’s so weak. It’s been difficult for him to get the confidence to put pressure on the leg. We need to educate him to walk like he had walked all his life. It was a difficult process. He’s doing physiotherapy and he walks twice a week in a treadmill in the water. He’s starting to get the muscle in his leg back again. He is walking with more confidence. I have no doubt he’s without pain – that’s the most important thing for me. I want him without pain. A lot of things have changed at home. I have a two-floor home and my bedroom is upstairs. Jimmy spends the day downstairs. I have to carry him upstairs and downstairs because he doesn’t know how to use the stairs. I have my bed on the floor and I have rubber floors to make his life a little easier. It’s the least I can do.
In what ways has Jimmy improved your mental health? Have you been able to educate others on autism?
I’m working seriously on this issue. Jimmy is my hero – he has helped me to accept myself as an autistic person. He’s my best friend and he has encouraged me to create and express myself. Without Jimmy, I wouldn’t be able to create anything or have confidence. I’m always behind him. He is the most important thing. He’s a shield. He is the way I found to express myself. He’s given me so much confidence to be creative. One of the great things Jimmy’s success gave me is a close friend who is a psychiatrist in New Zealand. She contacted me because she had two Bull Terriers. She works with autistic children in New Zealand. She found my book and read that I’m Aspergers. She encouraged me to tell more people that I’m Aspergers. They’re thousands of people who are Aspergers and they’ve got no idea that they are. Jimmy has helped me not to be open about my mental illness. He’s given me a whole universe of connections. When I posted that I’m autistic, mothers of autistic children messaged me. My next mission is to do more things around this topic. Greta Thunberg is a global leader in climate crisis but she wasn’t afraid to say that she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome to inspire other men, women, girls and boys who struggle with their mental health. It’s important for people to say how they’re feeling and what struggles they’re facing. We need to encourage each other. I always get messages about how Jimmy’s photos make them feel a little happier for a couple of seconds every day. It makes me very proud because this is the reason I started the page. It’s not about money. It’s how my artwork can touch somebody on the other side of the world. It’s amazing. It happened to me but it could happen to anyone. I always encourage everyone to express themselves whether it’s a photo, artwork or music. You need to put your heart into what you’re doing and you’ll find people who can connect with you. You can change with other people around the world. No money can buy the experience I’ve had. It’s an amazing thing for me as someone who doesn’t really have friends or social connections.
As someone with Asperger’s, has Jimmy’s success challenged you to confront your mental illness?
The difficult part of Jimmy’s success is when I had to go to events and meet people. This is the challenging part. I never know how to talk to these people. I am very shy! I’m very happy when people come to talk to me about Jimmy. People used to avoid Jimmy on the streets. I was the guy who was always avoided. I’m not a social guy: I’m neat, I’m nerdy, I’m full of tattoos, I’m always wearing sunglasses and headphones. People had a bad impression of me. I’m not a bad guy, I just don’t know how to be social. I love to hear that people like my artwork.
What are your future plans for Jimmy?
Everything I’ve done with Jimmy was my voice and my point of view of the world. I am sometimes political because I’m here to send a message whether you like it or not. I put myself on a side in a political debate and I’ve lost a lot of followers as a result. I don’t care because I’m here to express my opinion and if you don’t like it, unfollow me. It’s a democracy. But I wanted to figure out how to be Jimmy’s voice. I started to create the animations and the captions. I’m still trying to find his voice. I’ve no doubt that all dogs have a lot of things to teach us. They’re funnier than us, they’re smarter than us and he’s much cooler than me! I wanted to give Jimmy, who is the most important thing in my life, a voice. I wanted to make him immortal. I don’t know how many days, months or years Jimmy will stay with me. The real Jimmy. But I need Jimmy the character, the inspiration and the muse to be immortal. The animation is a way to make Jimmy in the next 10, 15, 20 years. I want Jimmy to live forever like Snoopy and Garfield. He’s immortal to me and I’ll never forget him. Just like anyone else who owns a cat or a dog. I have put Jimmy everywhere: pictures, cartoons, graffiti walls, billboards and tattooed on my body. This is my way of working with Jimmy even when he leaves me.
What advice would you have for other people trying to create an Instagram presence for their dog?
The advice would be the same as what I tried to do when I started my account. I wanted to do something original because Instagram has a lot of people doing amazing things. It’s so important to be original. Nowadays, nobody is 100 percent original. When you have lots of inspiration, it’s difficult to find your own path. I try not to be inspired by other people’s work. That’s why I don’t follow and consume other content on Instagram. I just follow my family and friends like my Mom who likes to take pictures of trees. You need to have a unique idea like Jimmy has the white background. It needs to be something when people are scrolling their feed, they see your photo and can understand it. You want them to think, ‘oh my god, it’s Kieran’s picture. I need to go back and see it’. Jimmy’s photos are all the same. It’s important when you’re in the same place as Beyonce, Jay Z, Lady Gaga, Nike and Adidas. You’re competing with huge brands. You need to find your niche and make your posts noticeable in this ocean of photos. Another important thing I tried to pursue from the beginning is getting people to understand my message no matter what language they speak. I tried to produce photos that don’t need a caption for people to understand: you don’t need a caption or subtitles to understand Jimmy portrayed as a unicorn. I believe these three things are very important: connect with your audience in the middle of the Instagram feed, be original and communicate to your followers without language to get as big a global following as possible.